Benchmark’s Future Is Outside New England, Embracing Disruption

The original article, Benchmark’s Future Is Outside New England, Embracing Disruption, written by Chuck Sudo, appears on Senior Housing News.

CEO  Tom Grape  opened Benchmark’s first New York community in September 2018. Demand for assisted living and memory care on Long Island and the company’s reputation coming into the market accounted for unprecedented occupancy growth.

CEO Tom Grape opened Benchmark’s first New York community in September 2018. Demand for assisted living and memory care on Long Island and the company’s reputation coming into the market accounted for unprecedented occupancy growth.

Benchmark Senior Living has long been one of New England’s largest senior housing operators. Now the firm is setting its sights outside the northeast.

The Waltham, Massachusetts-based provider recently opened Whisper Woods of Smithtown, a $25.5 million assisted living and memory care community with 130 assisted living and memory care units in Smithtown, New York. It is Benchmark’s first community in New York state, Benchmark chairman and CEO Tom Grape told Senior Housing News.

“We’ve long been working on entering New York,” he said. “It’s been a target market for some time.”

Now in eight Northeast states, Tom has frequently stated that Benchmark is interested in expanding outside the region to urban locations.

Now in eight Northeast states, Tom has frequently stated that Benchmark is interested in expanding outside the region to urban locations.

With Whisper Woods now open, Benchmark’s attention turns to expanding its pipeline. A second community is set to open in Woodbury, New York next spring, and Grape said the company is looking at several other locations for other construction opportunities outside of New England, where all but two its 58 communities are located.

“We’ve long seen our footprint as the Boston-to-Washington, D.C. corridor,” Grape said. “Northern Virginia would be as far south as we would consider.”

As a developer and operator, Grape believes Benchmark is not concerned about the oversupply the industry at large is currently struggling with, and is choosing its markets based on a lack of competition, where the demand-supply ratio favors them.

“Building, for us, is a market-by-market question,” Grape said. “We’re choosing markets where we believe demand remains strong, like Long Island.”

A fruitful partnership with Arena

Whisper Woods also marks Benchmark’s first new community to open since its partnership with Baltimore-based data analytics firm Arena launched last May. Arena uses data analytics to help senior housing providers hire employees who will stay at a community long term, and reduce employee turnover, Arena founder and CEO Mike Rosenbaum told SHN.

“We’re using predictive analytics to route someone into the place where they will be most successful,” he said.

Prior to implementing Arena, Benchmark’s turnover was higher than Grape would have preferred, although it was still lower than that of its competitors. Five months in, Arena has had a notable impact on Benchmark’s communities. At a presentation at last month’s National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) fall conference in Chicago, Benchmark revealed that employee turnover is down 10% since Arena launched in its communities, and Grape said the company is seeing significant improvement in the workers they are hiring.

“Being able to use Arena in a community from the get-go gives us confidence our workforce will improve and we’ll experience lower turnover from the onset,” Grape said.

He added that the Arena partnership strengthens Benchmark’s already solid reputation as an employer. The company is one of a handful to make the Boston Globe’s “Top Places to Work” list all 11 years of publication, Grape said. Benchmark was also recognized as a top employer by the Providence Journal and Hartford Courant, and was ranked 16th in Fortune magazine’s inaugural Best Workplaces for Aging Services list, and third among providers with 40 or more communities.

“We’re conscious of being a good provider and are always looking for ways to improve,” Grape said. “It can always be better.”

An eye on disruptive forces

The partnership with Arena is one example of Benchmark’s continuous search for operational efficiencies, and to stay ahead of the disruptive forces that are rapidly changing the senior housing industry.

“We’re always looking for new efficiencies and best practices,” Grape said. “We’re looking to purchase more effectively, staff differently and more effectively. We look for ways to improve the use of technology to give us more efficiencies, and employ different systems and vendors to help us do all these things.”

Another disruptive force Benchmark is monitoring is Medicare Advantage (MA). Although it is not currently partnered with an MA plan, the rule changes approved earlier this year by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS) have the potential to revolutionize senior living by creating a new revenue stream for providers, while making them more integral players in the U.S. health care system.

Benchmark wants to be prepared and Grape promises the company will be an active participant in MA when the opportunity arises.

“We’re exploring some [MA] options,” he said. “We know it’s coming and it’s a great development for seniors, and the industry.”

Additionally, Benchmark is looking at ways to have closer integration with its existing health care partners.

“This is an industry trend we’re pursuing in our markets,” Grape said.